Footballing ideologies have come define many French clubs. While for Monaco and Nice, pioneering with their youth driven models, this has been positive, Marseille’s often derided ‘Champions Project’, conversely focusing on established, aging names, has struggled to coalesce. With Adil Rami (33), Steve Mandanda (33) and Dimitri Payet (31) prominent, the Vélodrome had come to resemble something of a retirement home for French internationals. As a result, in a league ruled by youth, there was a sense that OM were becoming dinosaurs. However, that is finally changing.
A swash-buckling run to the Europa League final last term seemed to signal genuine progress for the Champions Project but, with an almost identical squad, this season has been disastrous. A fan banner reading: “Humiliated in Europe, Coupe de la Ligue and Coupe de France. Executives, manager, players. You are a disgrace to Marseille,” summed it up as OM managed just one Europa league point, fell into midtable and suffered a humiliating cup defeat to fourth tier opposition in early January.
Stalwarts Rami and Rolando formed the most porous defence in the top half, Payet remained anonymous for long spells while Luiz Gustavo struggled as he was constantly moved around the team positionally. The required €15m severance payout likely saved Rudi Garcia’s job after just 3 wins in 18 across all competitions between October and February.
However, circumstances lead to an uptick last month. A comfortable 2-0 win over St Étienne on Sunday was OM’s fourth in five games, cutting third place Lyon’s lead to five points, as injuries for Payet, Rami and Gustavo forced Garcia to trust youth. Technically gifted midfielder Maxime Lopez, 21, long promising but rarely consistent, took responsibility as the organising midfielder and performed with grace and maturity while, with centre back Rolando (33) dropped, 19 year old Boubacar Kamara, highly regarded for some time, was paired with Croatian international Duje Caleta-Car (22) in defence.
Caleta-Car’s summer move from Red Bull Salzburg had been close to disastrous, often posting slow and nervous performances, but he has finally found form alongside Kamara who may have settled on a central defensive role having been moved across the back four in the team under Garcia. Their five-game pairing has seen just two goals conceded.
Coinciding with this switch towards youth has been Mario Balotelli’s introduction. Desperate for a powerful centre forward for some time, the Italian, having stropped his way through the autumn at Nice, is again smiling and committed, a fact underlined by a jovial selfie celebration after a close range bicycle kick to open the scoring on Sunday. A burgeoning understanding with Florian Thauvin has equated to four goals in his first seven games. While Balotelli may represent old Champions Project ideas of a big name signed more on reputation than form or potential, Marseille’s recent rejuvenation has come largely by rejecting the model that once defined them. Gustavo and Payet have sat on the bench for the last three games, whilst Rami has not seen any minutes since his recovery.
With the older contingent marginalised, their futures are now in question. OM are reportedly interested in Reims’ stopper Edouard Mendy, Ligue 1’s best this season, to replace Mandanda. Rami, approached by an MLS franchise after the World Cup, could be tempted to leave at the end of the season given his ongoing relationship with Pamela Anderson while, not included in the 18 on Sunday, Rolando’s days at the Vélodrome are numbered, with his contract expiring in June. Payet meanwhile, the subject of Chinese interest, may be sold for budgetary reasons if OM do not qualify for the Champions’ League.
St Étienne for their part, still in the race for the top three, perhaps best underline Marseille’s inability to realise their ideas. Despite avoiding OM’s crass branding, Les Vertshave quietly adhered to similar ideals under Jean-Louis Gasset, but to relative success.
Gasset has signed and quietly eked the best from more experienced, “household” names since taking over the club at their lowest ebb in decades following the five goal derby loss to Lyon last season; making a return to Ligue 1’s top four would be some feat. Mathieu Debuchy’s goal-scoring exploits had him in contention for Les Bleus’ World Cup squad, Yann M’Vila has stood out this season in marshaling the ASSE midfield, while Wahbi Khazri has continued his resurgence with twelve league goals. Even aging captain Loïc Perrin and former Dortmund defender Neven Subotic have improved partially, thanks to a move towards a back three.
It remains unlikely that OM will divorce themselves entirely from the Champions Project philosophy in the longer term, because much like St Étienne their size and ferocious support means an overt ‘selling club’ model is not viable. However, the days of competing in vain with PSG may already be over. The emergence of Kamara and Lopez from the academy proves OM are capable of developing talented, technical players but they remain well behind Lyon’s prolific youth system for example and, much like PSG under Laurent Blanc, their focus on fame over substance has blocked a path to first team for young players. For this to change, an uncharacteristic patience is required.
Although necessary signings akin to Balotelli should continue and the likes of Florian Thauvin should be held on to at all costs, this summer will outline the club’s true intentions. Whether Payet, Rami, Mandanda and co. should linger and who might replace them are questions that will form the club’s future. However, given the rise of Kamara and Lopez, the very nature of the Champions Project that once defined Marseille may already have been extinguished.
by Adam White